President Obama's re-election largely hinges on his ability to play young voters for suckers -- again -- and whether Mitt Romney will let him.
In 2008, Obama won the youth vote by better than a 2-1 margin, 66 percent to 32 percent. Even more impressive, he actually expanded the share of young voters going to the polls by some 3 million. Those extra voters helped tip several swing states.
Obama owed his success to being a charming political unknown onto whom young people could project their hopes. His rhetoric was a hipsterized version of Successories for college kids: "Yes, we can" and "We are the ones we've been waiting for!"
His primary opponents were mostly a herd of political dinosaurs who'd been around since before the invention of not just the Internet, but cable TV. Joe Biden, an early primary opponent, had first run for president two years before your typical first-year college student had been born. Even Obama's main rival, Hillary Clinton, had been a fixture of TV news ever since college kids were still in preschool.
Obama was different. He had that cool name. He was black. He'd never done much that was important, save give some fun speeches, but that was OK; neither had most college students, and that didn't keep them from being special either. More important, they believed his promises, they liked his style, they bought his easy answers and flattering pandering.
Four years later, Obama's in trouble, which is why he's visiting college campuses more often than a Red Bull delivery truck. He's talking louder and getting more shrill, because his campaign knows how desperately it needs to replicate -- or even come close to replicating -- his success with the youth vote in 2008. Polls and countless news stories indicate that young voters are either bored, unimpressed or disappointed with Obama, and with the state of the country.
All of the exciting reasons to vote for Obama are gone. Even his accomplishments don't excite people, never mind his failures. His "Yes, we can" rhetoric is gone because it sounds stupid after four years of "No, we didn't." Now we get cynicism and fear-mongering. His attacks on the Republicans are tawdry and desperate. He even admits the "Buffett Rule" is a gimmick. Other issues like green energy are passé now, even though gas prices continue to soar. (A troubling sign for Obama: Only a third of hybrid car owners are interested in ever getting another after they get rid of the one they have.)
Obama's approval rating among 18- to 29-year-olds hovers around 50 percent (after almost a year of bad press for the GOP). But a late 2011 Harvard survey found that only 12 percent of young people felt the country was moving in the right direction. An outfit called Generation Opportunity, which is trying to organize young voters on economic issues, finds that 77 percent of young people have had to put their lives on hold because of the economy.
In short, conditions are not ripe for an Obama youth tsunami.
The trick for Romney isn't to pander to young voters. He'll never beat Obama and the Democrats at that game. But Romney can turn things to his advantage. He needs to contrast himself with Obama in ways that highlight Obama's desperate need to seem cool to compensate for his failures. Nothing turns off young people more than pretending to be "down with the youth" as it were.
Indeed, Romney should take some lessons from Ron Paul on this score. There is quite literally nothing hip or cool about Paul, but of all the politicians this cycle, he probably generates the most excitement among young voters. Now, part of Paul's appeal Romney cannot copy. Paul's esoteric and conspiratorial theorizing about the Federal Reserve, for instance, won't help Romney in the general election.
But what Romney can learn from the 76-year-old Paul is the appeal of authentic nerd chic. It's cool to be really into your issues and interests. And one of the things that distinguishes the millennial generation is an understanding that nerds -- Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs et al. -- get things done, and get rich as a result.
After four years of dashed expectations, a studiously uncool Romney might offer a welcome contrast to Obama's audacity of hype.